Three Société Générale executives have been arrested in Equatorial Guinea for allegedly breaking its banking secrecy laws, accused of leaking financial documents to be used against the country’s vice president during his upcoming corruption trial in Paris.
The move is the latest in a tit-for-tat battle between the two countries after French prosecutors this year formally charged the vice president, Teodoro Nguema Obiang, of acquiring real estate, luxury cars, art and other goods in France with public funds.
Geneva authorities last month confiscated 11 luxury vehicles and sports cars, including a Bugatti Veyron, from Mr Obiang as part of the French investigation, which follows a complaint brought by the non-government organisations Sherpa and Transparency International in 2007.
Mr Obiang is the the eldest son of Teodoro Obiang, the longest serving African president, who has ruled oil-rich Equatorial Guinea since he came to power 38 years ago through a coup. Mr Obiang is widely expected one day to take over from his father.
Equatorial Guinea has repeatedly sought to stop the upcoming trial in Paris, which starts on January 2 and could prove an embarrassment. In October, the country petitioned the International Court of Justice, arguing that Mr Obiang has diplomatic immunity. This was turned down.
Authorities in Equatorial Guinea last week arrested three SocGen executives – two French and one Spanish — and issued a statement that accused them of being “banking spies” who leaked financial data to foreign institutions.
The men were accused of “having transmitted statements of account and bank details of important personalities of our country to other foreign institutions,” including supplying details that Equatorial Guinea says could be used against Mr Obiang in his upcoming Paris trial.
The three executives had their passports confiscated and are not allowed to leave the country, said the government.
SocGen confirmed that three employees, who worked for its local subsidiary SGBGE, had been arrested and had a hearing in Equatorial Guinea. SocGen added: “SGBGE’s policy is to conduct its activities in compliance with applicable local and international regulations. We are continuing to monitor the situation of the employees in question closely. We cannot comment further at this stage.”
Mr Obiang previously faced a corruption case against him in the US. As part of a settlement in 2014, he agreed to sell $30m worth of assets, including a Malibu mansion, a Ferrari and part of his collection of Michael Jackson memorabilia. He denied all wrongdoing, saying his money came from legitimate sources.
The US case was still a blow to Mr Obiang, however, as he was publicly accused of a “corruption-fuelled spending spree” by the Department of Justice. Court documents said he received a salary of less than $100,000 a year, but used his influence to amass more than $300m worth of assets.
Equatorial Guinea boasts the highest level of per capita income in sub-Saharan Africa due to its ample oil and gas reserves. But three-quarters of the population live below the poverty line, according to estimates from the International Monetary Fund.
The Obiang family and its clan controls many of the key levers of political power and business in the country. Mr Obiang is in charge of national security. The president’s youngest son, Gabriel Mbaga Obiang, runs the oil ministry and the first lady’s brother is head of the state oil company.
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